Meet Deby Dixon: Living the dream as Yellowstone’s storyteller

 Meet Deby Dixon: Living the dream as Yellowstone’s storyteller

Yellowstone National Park is a captivating place. It grabs the soul and pulls us back year after year. At the top of every RVers bucket list, it is a place so majestic, so wild and big that it calls us to return, to explore, to get to know the diversity of its land and animals over and over again.

Some RVers make annual pilgrimages. Some volunteer as workers or hire on as temporary employees at the various concessions and park businesses. Anything to spend as much time there as possible.

A few, a very fortunate few, live there. Deby Dixon is one of those who – while technically not really living in the park year round – comes about as close as possible. She lives in and keeps her RV – a travel trailer – just outside the park gates and spends weeks at a time camping in the park in a tent. When she’s not camping, she drives in most every day.

debydixonDeby is a former police officer  now turned wildlife journalist and photographer. Jennifer and I met her this summer at Yellowstone, our second visit in a year to the park. We were camping at the Pebble Creek campground and hanging out in our Roadtrek, with the sliding door open, waiting for a black bear that had been browsing in a meadow directly across from us to step into better view. Alas, the bear instead headed back into the trees.

But then Deby passed by on her way out of the campground. She stopped, backed up and came over to check out our Roadtrek. Jennifer had met her earlier and so the two chatted. I gave a quick tour of the Roadtrek, which Deby thought would make a great vehicle for her.Deby Dixon 200

She was camping a few spaces over in her tent.

She had been in that tent for close to a month.

This was in early July. When we returned home, I looked her up and have been a fan of her work ever since.

Debby, injured on the job as a law enforcement officer up in North Carolina, took up photography to illustrate articles she was writing for various publications on national parks. She loves all the national parks and has visited and photographed many. The photo above is a self portrait taken last year at Mt. Baker, looking toward Mt. Schuksan in North Cascades National Park where she worked as a photography volunteer.

Her love of the national park wilderness and the animals that live there started after a month-long camping trip to Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in 2009. The experience dramatically changed her life.

“I no longer could stay home in the city,” she writes.  “I sold everything and moved into a 1970s model, 17-foot-travel trailer (since upgraded to a newer 21 foot trailer) and left on a journey to see the parks.”

dd820editewebBut since the fall of 2012, she’s been pretty much living at Yellowstone, writing about and photographing wildlife, especially the fragile wolf pack that hangs out in the Lamar Valley. She knows each wolf’s history, it’s parents and siblings and the story of its struggle to survive. You’ll learn all about that in our Q&A below.

She keeps her travel trailer in Gardiner, at the park’s Northern entrances. Last winter, she rented an apartment there off season but made her way into the park every time she could all winter long.

Since the snow melted, she’s spent a lot of time camping at Slough Creek or Pebble Creek, getting up most mornings at 4 AM and heading to her favorite vantage points in Lamar Valley in the northeast part of the park that is home to bison, black bears, grizzly bears, coyotes, badgers, otters, elk and wolves.

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Deby’s Facebook Page at http://www.facebook.com/debydixonphotography

She will typically stay out there till mid or late morning, return to camp to edit her photos, maybe answer some e-mail, work on her photography column for National Parks Traveler magazine and then update her Deby Dixon Photography Page and a new one, strictly about the Park, the Yellowstone Daily. By 5 PM or so, she’s back out in Lamar Valley, or wherever the animal action happens to be that day. Sometimes she will hike off to favorite spots to just sit and wait to see what animals show up. Often, she’s not back at camp until way after dark.

Divorced, she has four grandchildren and two sons who live in Idaho. She travels and camps alone but has many friends at Yellowstone, fellow photographers and animal watchers. There’s a whole community of like-minded people who spend as much time as they can at the park. You’ll see them in the various  pulloffs around the park’s perimeter roads, usually with spotting scopes. Most are equipped with their own two way business band radios that they use to share sightings and pass along tips about what animals are where.

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Deby’s new Yellowstone Daily at www.facebook.com/TheYellowstoneDaily

Deby is well respected by the other photographers, and park rangers as well, even though she has no official connection with the parks service.

“She’s a great photographer and she’s driven by a genuine love of the animals and the park,” the Pebble Creek campground host told me. “Everyone around here looks up to her. She is very dedicated. Has to be to keep the hours she keeps taking her pictures.”

Over the past couple of years, her almost daily stories and photos have captivated thousands who have discovered her animal advocacy journalism and wildlife photography. You, I am sure, will be among them once you check out the links to her Facebook Pages.

Here’s my Q&A with Deby:

Q: Why is Yellowstone so important to you?

A: Because Yellowstone is a massive and diverse eco-system that has everything in nature that one could want – from the high peaks and sub-alpine meadows to the rocky desert sage.  There are wide-open spaces, meadows and valleys and thick evergreen and conifer forests, along with lakes, streams and creeks.   And then there is the scary mystery of the thermal features that constantly capture my imagination.  I mean, if Yellowstone blows, I will be amongst the first to go as lava fields and plumes of ash spread.  And then there is the wildlife, their lives, their interactions and their untimely deaths.  For a wildlife/nature photographer who likes to write stories, Yellowstone has almost everything.  Everything except the Tetons reflected in the Snake River, another favorite national park just to the south of Yellowstone.

Q: Why have wolves captured my heart?

A: Over a year ago my son asked me what I knew about the wolves and what kinds of experiences I have had with them.  At the time I had seen a collared black wolf cross the road in front of me in the Tetons and four wolves hunting elk on Willow Flats in Teton National Park.  Before seeing the wolf hunt prey that day, I had been anti-hunting because I couldn’t stand to think of animals being killed in any way.  However, while watching that hunt by the wolves, during which the elk rallied and saved a fawn but sacrificed a cow, I suddenly realized that this was the world the way it was intended to be.

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Food was put on this earth for all of us and if we all just took what we needed, like the animals do, then there would be plenty.  Hunting was simply a way of gathering food.  Unfortunately, my son hates wolves and he proceeded to fill me in about these “vicious” animals.  So much of what he said did not ring true but I had no way of know that for sure and so I kept my mouth shut.  But, the conversation with my son weighed heavy on my mind and in my heart and so when I got the opportunity to spend a winter in Gardiner, MT, next to Yellowstone, I made the learning about wolves my mission.  My slate was clean and I was eager to find out what the truth was about wolves, even if that meant that my son was right.  But, I got here, to Yellowstone, and found a difficult situation in that those naturalists who watch over wolves are not fond of photographers and so the opportunities to see and learn were few.  And, unknown to me, the wolves were being hunted when they stepped outside of the park.  In fact, Yellowstone wolves were being targeted to be killed.  Both situations were baffling to me because, obviously the lives of the wolves were in danger while people who could advocate for them were being pushed away.  My determination was great and I preserved in my goal to learn the truth about the wolves – did they kill for sport?  Do wolves prey on people?  Are they killing all of the elk?  Where are the elk?  Those questions and many more.  I learned that most of what my son, and other wolf haters, believe is not true or is greatly exaggerated.  And, in the three years I had been visiting Yellowstone, the changes in the eco-system that was once ravaged by thousands of elk standing around without fear of predation, were apparent.  Plus, Yellowstone had more moose then had been around for a long time.  But, the thing that got to me the most was that there were people in the world with so much hate in their hearts that they would target wolves that lived in a national park and brought research, education and viewing opportunities to millions of people.  These wolves had touched many lives and people came to Yellowstone from all over the world in hopes of seeing them.  The wolves rarely left the park and had no history of killing livestock at that time, yet hunters were using carcasses, urine and puppy calls to lure them across the national park border so that one man’s bullet could take one wolf away from millions.

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This, to me, was incomprehensible then and still is, nearly one year later.  In the past year I have watched the loss of key wolves have a devastating effect on their  family member’s, making them struggle to survive.  I have had wolves stop only a few feet from me and look into my eyes and even had one appear on a cliff above my head, look at me and then lift her head to howl at the full moon.  I have seen their struggles and felt their hearts.  They are only trying to survive, just like you and I.  I have stood and watched as researchers retrieved a female wolf’s body from the forest, after she was killed by other wolves, and seen puppies play.  I haven’t seen it all in the wolf world, but I have seen a lot.  Wolves have made me happy, sad and angry when they killed a favorite animal or a coyote’s pups.  They are not perfect, but neither am I.  The wolf hunt is on in Montana again, longer this year, basically allowing hunters to do whatever is necessary to kill a wolf.  Once again wolf haters want to kill collared or favorite Yellowstone wolves and once again I don’t understand.  The Montana government is pandering to a small group of loud, hateful people who don’t have their facts straight and I can’t understand why any government would condone that type of behavior.  The problem is multi-layered because the watching of the wolves while in the park, and showing them to the public, has made the wolves accustomed to people and cars, making them easy targets for the hunters.  Just recently my favorite wolf, the first one to look into my eyes, 820F, was killed in Jardine because she was bold around people and had no fear.  She was not aggressive towards people but she was bold and was not easily hazed away.  And so, because she was so habituated to humans, she was shot and killed, leaving behind two puppies.  My heart was broken and it will be broken again, when other Yellowstone wolves are killed by hunters who want to take them away from the world.  I believe that much can be done to change the future of the remaining Yellowstone wolves and so I photograph them whenever possible and share their stories with the world.  I have turned wolf enthusiasts into avid wolf lovers, just by my photos and stories. And if I can continue doing that, one person at a time, then there might be hope that the wolves will survive long into the future.  Because they belong to this earth.

Q: How will you spend this winter?

A: At the moment I plan to spend another winter in Gardiner where I will have access to the Northern section of Yellowstone on a daily basis.  Just how that will happen is up in the air at this moment but there are a couple of options for me to consider.  A little over two years ago I sold everything and purchased a small travel trailer so that I could spend my time at national parks.   The trailer is not suitable for winter living and so I was able to find affordable, and wonderful, living accommodations for last winter but have been back in the trailer since April 15.  When you met me I was camping in the park, in my tent, so that I could be closer to the wolves and be there to see the puppies when they finally emerged from the dens.  I spent a month in the tent before returning to my trailer in Gardiner where I am now living.  I hope to spend more time editing photos and writing stories for a couple of books that I hope to have completed towards the end of next year.  In other words, this journey is expensive and I need to make it pay so that I can continue.

Q: Do you get lonely out there?

A: Yes, but not often.  I do not have anyone at hand to tell the stories of my day, which is why Facebook and blogging is so important to me.  For a number of years I didn’t blog and found that my stories were lost from memory because it is only in the re-telling or writing that they become a solid piece of history.  If I go out into the wilderness and see five wolves playing but can’t share the moment with anyone, then it is lost.  The magic is gone. With Facebook, I get to tell whoever wants to read about the wonders of Yellowstone or any other place that I happen to be visiting.  There are times when I crave close companionship and a conversation but my life is over-flowing with wonderful adventures, along with photos to edit and stories to write.  I have no time left at the end of the day and my lifestyle is not conducive to close relationships.  I don’t even know what movies are playing or what the top ten songs are, so conversation would be limited to bears, elk, moose, wolves, etc.  Still, I think that maybe someday the right person will come along.  I have been single for over 20 years and while I don’t look for anyone, I haven’t given up.

So there you go. Now you know Deby Dixon. Once again, her Facebook Pages are:

The Yellowstone Daily at facebook.com/TheYellowstoneDaily

and…

Deby Dixon Photography at facebook.com/debydixonphotography

Mike Wendland

Mike is a veteran journalist who, with his wife, Jennifer, travels North America in a small motorhome, blogging about the people, places, joys and adventure of RV life on the road. He enjoys camping (obviously), hiking, biking, fitness, photography, kayaking, video editing, and all things dealing with technology and the outdoors. See and subscribe to his RV Lifestyle Channel on YouTube, where he has hundreds of RV and travel related videos. His PC MIke TV reports, on personal technology are distributed weekly to all 215 NBC-TV stations.

22 Comments

  • What a great story about wonderful person who does what many of us wish we could do. Thank you Mike for finding her and introducing us to her work and sensitizing us to the plight of wolves. I will follow her. Once again, roadtreking.com delivered a great and delightful reading surprise to me this morning!

  • They hunt wolves here in Wisconsin and that same hatred is here, too. Deby Dixon is a very special person and the world needs more people like her. Thanks, Mike. And like the previous comment says, your blog continues to inspire us with the many wonderful places and people you take us to through your writing.

    • Thank you for caring about the Wisconsin wolves.

  • Kudos to Deby Dixon. There is a great documentary on BC West Coast Wolves. They are distinct from inland wolves and have adapted to fish salmon, however, they only eat part of the salmon (I believe the head) as the rest of the fish have parasites that can kill them. The more awareness of this social animal, the better. The bears and the wolves take the fish into the forest and the remains of the fish fertilize the trees and bush creating a lush environment….there it is….the bigger picture… circle of life. Thanks Mike and Jennifer for letting us know about Deby and her good work.

    • Maureen, it is always about the bigger picture. When we look at one small piece, we don’t see the trickle down affect/benefit of many things, such as the fish fertilizing the soil.

  • I have been following Deby Dixon for several months now and love her work. Great article that you have written about her! I enjoy your blog!

  • Thank you so much for sharing this information-what a great piece on Deby and the wolves and Yellowstone.

  • OMG, I just started following Deby myself a couple weeks ago and am absolutely fascinated by her ability and perseverance to photograph these mysterious (to many of us) animals! Think I picked up on her from a link that Jeff Wendland had posted on his fb page.

    Personally, I’ve always had a fear of wolves (the music that represents the wolf in Peter and the Wolf still makes my hair stand on end!). I’m learning that I know very little about the species, and I like what Deby is teaching us, giving a whole different perspective. I think the story she tells in her blog about the wolf who appeared above (and very near) her on the cliff, stared straight at her and then howled, was very telling about the keen intellect they possess. Fascinating stuff.

    Great story, Mike!

    • Shari, I was once afraid of the wolves, because of those childhood stories, but have been super close to them several times now and have never detected any aggression towards myself or others. They sometimes look confused by our behavior but not mean. Though, I would imagine that, since they are so family oriented, that if a person were to threaten a pup, a wolf would protect it, as they should. Your gut reaction about the keen intellect was right on. Thank you.

  • Great story Mike. I wonder what advice Deby would give us if we want to assist in her cause. Seems wolf haters are all across the country. How is the best way for us to oppose hunting and destruction of these magnificent creatures? Maybe an RV rally at Yellowstone to support the wolf? Just kidding, but do want to help and I’m always looking for an excuse to go to Yellowstone. Thanks again for this report.

    • Martin, what a wonderful question for you to ask. I love the idea of an RV rally at Yellowstone, especially one that brought in a lot of people who didn’t spend a dime in the wolf-hunting gateway communities. Do you think that we could pull something like that off? The other great thing would be to get a celebrity involved in advocating for the wolves – someone who might be a role model to those who hunt them. Come on to Yellowstone and bring your friends!

  • i was very fortunate to see wolves once – we were driving through the jicarilla apache reservation up in the mountains of new mexico, and a pair were crossing the road. one had crossed before we drove into sight and was waiting for the other, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen them. unfortunately, by the time they finished “taming the wilderness” there’s not much wilderness left for us these days.

    deby’s more dedicated than i am – having a Roadtrek gets me about anywhere you can go without 4WD, and when you get there you’ve got hot and cold running water, a full size bed with memory foam, a thermostat on the wall for cold mornings, etc. that tent camping would wear on me.

    • At my age, I would rather be in a Roadtrek than to be on the ground in a tent but we work with what we have. My choice is between the bed and being out in the park.

  • I’ve seen wolves in the wild just once…a couple years ago on assignment for the Detroit Free Press in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I went up to do a story on the reintroduction of moose and wolves in the UP. All the experts – as you can see in this video- said t was impossible. But we found them all. Three wolves crossed M28 near L’Anse as we were driving past and I was able to get some video of these magnificent creatures. Ever since, the UP has had a special hold on us. I cam back here this summer and did a piece questioning the wolf hunt the state just allowed, despite widespread opposition. That hunt is also fueled by hatred and exaggerated claims. Jennifer and I are in the UP as I write this, our third trip here in nine months.
    Here’s that Detroit Free Press video I did: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEs5VZFpE3Q
    Here’s the story and video I did this summer on the Michigan wolf hunt: https://rvlifestyle.com/michigan-wolf-hunting/

    • Very nice work Mike. It is amazing that you saw those wolves.

  • Mike: Why not add Deby to your list of bloggers? It would be great if she updated us from time to time on what’s happening out there at Yellowstone. She does live in an RV after all. Your blog would give her another platform and since all of us roadtrekers love Yellowstone, it would certainly appeal to your audience here as well. Just thinkin’ 🙂

    • Thank you Shelly.

  • I really enjoyed Deby’s story and congratulate her for her efforts to save the wolves. I have been visiting my favorite national park (Yellowstone), on and off, for the past 50 years! I, like Deby, really enjoy photography, and Yellowstone affords the avid photographer numerous and wonderful opportunities. Now, I am curious if Deby might try some ice fishing, on Yellowstone Lake, this winter. I understand that the lake, in soime places, has a three foot ice cover! I visited Yellowstone, once again, for five days this August. I enjoy introducing my grand children, to what I enjoyed as a children, which is nature at it’s best. We were not disappointed. Thank you, Deby, for sharing your experiences, wonderful photographs, and enlightening knowledge with us.

  • Gary, I haven’t fished in years, although I used to be a fanatic. Have always wanted to try ice fishing but it is tough to get to the interior of the park in winter.

  • I have been following Deby for a few months now. I am a great advocate for all things wild. I appreciate her being way out on the fringe to get the point across. It helps those like me be able to be a little more mainstream but still advocate for all things wild.
    I have seen almost all the animals in Yellowstone except the wolf. I have heard them and see their footprints and their scat but never the animal. You know what? It doesn’t matter what is important, I think, is knowing they are out there. Knowing that they are there helps me survive a little more easily in an urban setting.
    Deby, have you ever hear of the California Wolf Reserve in Julian, CA. One time I had a small tour group there to visit and all 32 wolfs started to howl at one time. It was one of the most thrilling things I have ever heard.
    i will continue to follow Deby over the years and who knows, one day our paths may cross in Yellowstone.
    By the way you should see her 2014 calendar. I have it and am anxiously awaiting Jan 1.

  • Wonderful article, Mike. Thanks for introducing us to Deby. I’m now following both her pages. Nice work, Deby. Thank you for your dedication.

  • Mike,
    When you’re up at the Beargrease, bear in mind that most of those dog-sled racing breeds are not far removed from their wolf ancestors. We sometimes hear wolves howl near our cabin up near Grand Marais (MN!). Our neighbor used to kennel upwards of 100 dogs nearby – you should have heard the howls from the kennel when they sensed wild wolves nearby!
    Wolves often pace the mushers and sled-dog teams during the race – out of curiosity or just protecting their territory. Can be a little disconcerting for the musher, though – teams have been know try to follow the wolves, off the trail and into the wilderess. A loose dog can be in trouble – or lunch!
    If you are coming through Minneapolis/St Paul on your way up to Duluth, perhaps we could meet somewhere – or you could plug in here before proceeding. Sorry I won’t be able to make it, having lured you into the Beargrease, but I really have to be at my wife’s side in this hour of trial.

    Gary

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